Ahoy there! Bosn’s Pipes & Deck Prisms

Ahoy there! Bosn’s Pipes & Deck Prisms

Ahoy there! From the days of tall ships sailing the open seas come these cool antiques that washed ashore at a recent QBO sale.

First is a Boatswain’s whistle, also known as a bosn’s call or bosn’s pipe. Occasionally used on today’s Navy ships by the Boatswain’s Mate (BM), the parts of the whistle have naval names: the tube you blow into is “the gun”, the pierced, hollow ball that actually sounds is “the buoy” and the bottom fin is “the keel”. By varying how your hand clasps the whistle as you blow, different tones are produced. A “shackle” clips the whistle to a chain to wear around the neck when in dress uniform.

‘Boatswain’ (sometimes spelled phonetically as Bosun or Bos’n) comes from Old Norse, the language of seafaring Vikings and means “boat retainer” or “boat servant”. It is the oldest rank in the British Royal Navy, dating to the year 1040 and the reign of English King Edward the Confessor. His warships started with 4 officers: Master (Captain), Bos’n, Cook and Carpenter. The Bos’n cared for the ship’s rigging, anchors, sails, lifeboats, and flags. His loud whistle broadcast commands when the roar of the sea drowned out shouted orders.

In today’s U.S. Navy, the BM supervises ship’s maintenance, stands watch, assists with search and rescue and communications, moves supplies between ships at sea, acts as flight deck crew for landing helicopters and teaches seamanship to other sailors – a real Jack of All Trades. The only time their whistle is used is during Navy ceremonies such as ‘Pipe Aboard/Pipe Ashore’; calls sounded when Flag-rank officers or important guests board or depart; or when a sailor leaves for retirement, or for funerals when the body of an important person is brought aboard for transport home or for their final burial at sea.

Like the whistle, these two cast glass pieces are antique maritime technology. Called deck prisms, or less commonly deck lights or deadlights, the larger is 4.25″ tall and weighs 2.75 lbs. While the first patent was filed in 1684; deck prisms first mention in print came in the 1840s. Most are faceted cones with a flat hexagonal top; there are also domed or long bar-shaped variants. These two look like pyramids pointing to the sky, but the point is actually the bottom of the prism.

Deck prisms offered an elegant solution to a dangerous problem. Before electricity, light below deck was provided by lanterns burning oil which made irritating smoke and could burn down the ship, killing everyone. During daylight hours a deck prism (dimly) lights below deck without flame. The prism is inset in a hole cut in the top deck and caulked watertight. Its flat top sits flush (no tripping hazard) and its faceted point scatters light below deck more effectively than flat glass. The size of the prism insures that the hole does not compromise deck strength. The prisms worked in reverse, too; on ships carrying flammable cargo like coal, crew on deck could spot fires that broke out below.

There are reproduction prisms, sometimes made in inappropriately deep colors, given their purpose. Antiques can be clear, coke bottle green or lavender because manganese dioxide was sometimes added as a clearing agent. When exposed to years of ultraviolet sunlight, the manganese turns purple. And, here on dry land there is still sidewalk in Corvallis that has its own deadlights (AKA pavement lights or vault lights) from the 1850s; a grid of thick, lavender 3″ blocks of glass set flush in the cement; skylights to a building’s basement under the sidewalk. Want to light up someone’s life? Why not give them a handsome deck prism from QBO.